Congolese refugees settle into life in Wichita

Musa Rashidi, a former Congolese refugee, is working with refugee families to help them transition to life in Wichita.
Musa Rashidi, a former Congolese refugee, is working with refugee families to help them transition to life in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

Musa Rashidi doesn’t like to think about the past, but sometimes he has to.

“When I left (Congo) it was horrible,” Rashidi said about the civil war that overtook his country and decimated his town. “There were no birds flying.”

For three months after the 14-year-old fled Congo to Malawi, he said, the smell of burned flesh was so bad, he could not eat meat.

“You have no time to look around for mommy and daddy,” Rashidi said, as he rolled up his pant leg to reveal ankle scars from the day his village was attacked. “They are dead.”

Rashidi has lived in Wichita for over three years now and has taken on the role of case worker for EWARM, the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry.

In its first three years in Wichita, EWARM focused on resettling political refugees from Myanmar, but in the past year the focus has shifted to Africa and, so far, mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the last year EWARM has increased the number of refugees it helps settle in Wichita from an average of 60 in its first three years to now 71 just since October. On Saturday, EWARM will celebrate World Refugee Day at its offices at 401 N. Emporia with snacks, lemonade and, for the first time, a traditional Congolese dance.

Helping families who arrive with little more than a couple of bags is a huge job. It would be almost impossible for EWARM without someone like Rashidi, who was hired in January in part because he can speak 10 languages to various extents, he says, including Kyswahili and Knyrwanda, the most common languages spoken in Congo.

Some of the refugees speak English or have lived in a modern city. But many start with no English language skills and, when they first arrive at Wichita’s airport, Rashidi has to show even the adults how to buckle their seat belts.

The first night he shows them how to use the keys to their new apartment and how to dial 911. The rest can wait until the morning, and the many other EWARM home visits and classes that the refugees will attend with decreasing frequency over the next five years, until they can become U.S. citizens.

The challenge of transitioning to life in the U.S. starts with the plane ride. A mother who arrived in Wichita this April with her six children, after spending eight years in a Ugandan refugee camp, said the air turbulence frightened her family.

“I was scared,” said her second-oldest son, 20, who survived the violence in Congo but who learned from a handful of movies that almost no one survives a plane crash. “I thought we were going to die. It was shaking so fast.”

Some families in this story did not want their children’s names used or their faces shown, they said, because they are afraid that someone in Congo might find out where they are living now and try to harm them.

Their first flight took Uwimana, the mother who would only give her first name, from Uganda to Brussels, New York, Chicago and, in a last-minute surprise, Wichita. The family had been told they were heading to Grand Rapids, Mich.

In just a month, they say, their lives have transformed completely.

Instead of living in a two-room hut with a thatched roof and cow dung spread across the floor, their mother has a kitchen where she can put the plates that she used to store under beds. Instead of fighting over who would wash the sheets next, her children can now each wash their own sheets, because they each have their own bed to sleep in.

Uwimana’s family is just one of nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, according to a report released this week by the United Nations, but only around 70,000 will be granted refuge in the U.S. this year. EWARM started with just one staff member in 2011 but now has five and a full-time volunteer. They make sure families have a place to stay from the first night of their arrival, beds that are made, and a fridge full of foods common to Congo, such as chicken and cassava.

“We help them with documentation, we help them find jobs, we set up their apartments,” said Kathy McCoy, EWARM’s volunteer coordinator. “They’re families of five or six people, and you can imagine how much stuff that takes to get them a home when they’ve come with maybe two suitcases.”

Three years ago Rashidi said that, when he went to apply for a job, the company didn’t recognize his refugee papers. When he tried to open a bank account, the bank just threw up its hands at his documents. Now EWARM knows to send refugees only to the main branch of banks when they are opening an account, according to Marla Schmidt, EWARM’s director.

Liberate Kayirere, 42, arrived in Wichita with her husband, Claver Kayihura, 54, and their six children last September. They each work 50 miles from the city. They whisper a few words to each other in bed at midnight when Kayihura comes home from work at Tyson Foods. Then three hours later Kayihura drives his wife to a meeting spot where she catches a ride with a co-worker 50 miles in the opposite direction.

EWARM has developed relationships with some employers, such as Tyson, which uses videos rather than spoken instruction to train Kayihura to do work because he doesn’t speak English. But most companies in Wichita don’t know that refugees become permanent residents after a year and can become citizens in five years. So companies often confuse them with illegal immigrants or fail to make accommodations for language barriers – and don’t hire them.

Their children just completed their first year of school in Wichita, and Kayirere beams when relating that her children received all A’s.

Kayirere’s children like the pizza and hamburgers they ate at school last year. In Rwanda, they mostly ate beans, they said, and only sometimes rice. Kayirere and Kayihura had their wedding in Congo, but each of their six children was born during their 17 years in a Rwandan refugee camp.

“I tell (kids at school) that I come from Rwanda,” said their oldest child, who is 18. “But my mom and dad were born in the Congo.”

Kayirere was surprised when she arrived by how wide the streets were and how little walking Americans do. In order to fit in, she’s stopped carrying loads on top of her head or strapping children to her body. But she still wears the brightly colored African dresses and head scarves she brought with her.

Her biggest challenge is English. “I am so old,” she said through an interpreter. “It is not easy for a grownup person to learn a new language.”

Kayirere’s children have been asking her for a computer, recently, just like the ones they use at American school. Her children want to show her how to write with it.

But she is not asking for a computer from anyone, she said. She hopes to buy one for them some day.

“I don’t want my kids to face the same life that I faced before,” Kayirere said, laughing, as she did to every question: laughter, she said, is how all Jehovah’s Witnesses approach their lives. “I just want my kids to have a very nice life, without starving.”

World Refugee Day

What: World Refugee Day celebration at EWARM. The free event is open to the public.

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: 401 N. Emporia

Related stories from Wichita Eagle